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Transcript of doorstop: ACTU meeting, Sydney: 6 May 2004: ACTU meeting, Federal Budget; Athens; detention centres; science package.

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Subjects: ACTU meeting, Federal Budget; Athens; detention centres; Science package

LATHAM: Thanks for coming along. I'm here today with Craig Emerson our Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations to brief the ACTU executive on Labor's policies for working families and to encourage their support for our strategy.

Our starting point is to end the Howard Government's dog eat dog approach to industrial relations. We believe that cooperation and consensus are the best way to build productivity in the Australian workplace. As a result we want enterprise bargaining to be the main organising principle for industrial relations rather than individual contracts.

We believe in workplace flexibility but it has got to have a basic safety net. It's got to have enterprise bargaining as the main focus. We also believe in industrial relations that take seriously the issue of work and family, helping parents get the

balance right and we'll be putting forward our policies to improve the rights of working parents right around the country. And also emphasising our very important baby care payment, this important payment is to help families with the cost of raising a newborn baby, to ensure that it is a time that they can love and nurture their child rather than worry about all the financial pressures. Mr Howard calls this the barbeque stopper but there is not much sizzle on his hot plate. We're actually advancing very good initiatives and we are seeking the support of the ACTU for it.

We'll also be talking about our strategies for social investment in health, education - ensuring that we are opening up social opportunity as much as possible around the country - our plan to invest in early childhood development, needs based funding for our schools; our strategy for expanding the university and TAFE system, reversing the Government's 25% increase in HECS. Our very important strategy for saving bulk billing in Australia, saving Medicare and restoring the practice of a national dental program.

In the meeting I will also be outlining our approach to the forthcoming budget. We're very critical of the way the Howard Government handles Budget strategy because they load up with a spending spree prior to the election and then claw back the benefits when the election is out of the way. Prior to the 1998 election

they spent $25 billion to try and get themselves out of political trouble. Prior to

the last election they spent $20 billion doing the same thing and after that election what we find out is through the loss of bulkbilling, through higher university fees, through higher Telstra charges, through family debts and other imposts on the family budget, people are actually worse off.

So we don't see the talk about tax relief or tax cuts as genuine. The truth is since 1996 the average household is paying an extra $9000 in federal taxes and all the Government is proposing to do is give back a small fraction of that - the extra money that people have paid, giving a small refund on that in the Budget next Tuesday. So we are critical of the Government pea and thimble trick in terms of Budget strategies - spending sprees prior to the election and then clawing back the benefits after the election. We want to invest in a more sustainable way in the long term future and benefit of Australia rather than this election strategy that the Howard Government has embarked upon.

LATHAM: We are here to talk to the trade union movement about those important issues and I must just ask Craig to say a few words as our Shadow Minister.

EMERSON: Thanks mate. Labor supports productive harmonious work places where the benefits of [inaudible] are fairly shared. As Mark has said in the past we are all for prosperity, prosperity with purpose, prosperity that is shared, prosperity that creates opportunity. In talking to the Union Movement today about our approach to workplace relations and the broader task of charting the future for this country, we don’t support the dog-eat-dog mentality of the Howard Government.

We know that encouraging people through harmony, by working together and making sure that the benefits are fairly shared. Just yesterday the National Wage Case came down to $19 a week, the Government argued for $10 a week for the

lowest paid workers in this country, which would be: after tax and inflation be $2.10 a week pay cut. So you can see the philosophy of the Howard Government as contrasted with ours which is a fair go for all. We believe in a fair Australia and this election will determine whether we can again invoke a fair Australia or whether we go back to law of the jungle and we don’t want to see that.

In this country 1.9 million, almost 2 million trade union members and we will be talking to the trade union leaders today, building those bonds with the trade union movement that we have been building. We are proud of our bonds with the trade union movement and we wish to convey through the leadership and through direct face to face meetings that Mark has been involved in, that I have been involved in shows how committed we are to living standards of working Australians in this country. So we will be expecting to improve that relationship

that has been improving all along and we want to make that bond very strong so we can communicate with working men and women of Australia in the trade union movement and those who are not in a trade union. That is the force we attach to returning Australia to being a fair country.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

EMERSON: We will give our casual workers who are employed on a regular long term basis a right to request a conversion of permanent work. And employers will not be able to unreasonably refuse such a request. In terms of reasonableness what does that mean? Well it would have regard to the size and nature of the business. We recognise that smaller businesses might find it more difficult to agree to a request to convert to permanent work. But it is a big problem in this country and we intend to do something about it. Give some job security, some job entitlements; sick leave, holiday pay to those long term casual workers. And very importantly when we have got record low first home ownership it is important to understand that one in four Australian workers is a casual and they find it very difficult to get a home loan. They are locked out of home ownership or get smaller deposits than those who are in permanent work. So there are big social dimensions through our policy to give a little bit of job security to those casuals who are employed on a long term regular basis.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

EMERSON: We are fair dinkum about work and family balance. As Mark said in relation to John Howard’s barbecue stopping issue of work and family balance there is not much sizzle on the hotplate and any sizzle that might be there is not

very well fuelled at all. But we are absolutely committed to improving the balance between work and family life. We have announced already a range of measures; the baby care payment will assist mothers who have babies, of course working and non working mothers. And we will give working mothers a right to request a return to work on a part time basis. So again very similar to the emphasis on casuals, this will assist working mothers to balance work and family much better, so that they don’t have to make this once and for all choice. That is; full time parenting or full time work, they will be able to balance work and family responsibilities. I know they aspire to be good parents and good workers. This will allow that to happen. So we have announced that policy and it has been warmly embraced by the trade union movement as has our policy in relation to casuals.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

LATHAM: There is always extra issues that get raised and as Craig mentioned they are the biggest community based organisation in this country with nearly 2

million members. And for that reason it is important to have the dialogue. There is always issues that need to be discussed and sure we don’t agree on everything. But certainly when it comes to the basics of social investment, the

basics of balancing work and family, our long term strategy for the country, our agenda for industrial relations, it is good to have their support and we will be wanting to talk through those issues and look forward to that process in the future.

JOURNALIST: Mr Latham the latest Al Qeada warnings puts Australians in Indonesia on the top of Al Qeada’s hit list. Does that confirm for you that Australia’s involvement in Iraq is making us more of a terrorist target?

LATHAM: That has been acknowledged by experts and by the general public that the Howard Government’s failed policies in Iraq have contributed to the level of risk and danger in this country. We need to respond by getting the home front right. There are a whole range of concerns about national security. The fact that our intelligence service has been heavily criticised from within. The fact that our airport and port security is inadequate. The fact that we don’t have a coastguard, an effective maritime policing in Australia. We haven’t got a Department of Homeland Security, a point of reference where the states and territories can work with the Commonwealth to make this country as safe and secure as possible. So we know these threats exist and that the Howard Government’s policies haven’t been right and they have been inadequate on the home front, and Labor will be advancing a lot of strategies to ensure we get it right in this country to keep the Australian people as safe and sound as we can for the future.

JOURNALIST: Should the guards accompany the athletes to Athens?

LATHAM: I would have the thought the best thing to do is take professional security advice. If the advice is that they need armed security at the Olympic Games then that’s what should happen. So it is best left to the professionals to make their assessment. Certainly I’m sure the Australian people want our athletes to be as safe as possible through this period of the Olympic Games in Athens. The appropriate thing to do is take professional advice and of course take absolutely no risks with safety.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that they should go, or should not go?

LATHAM: They’re going, as I understand it, based on the available advice. But in the period leading up to the Games the best thing always is to take professional advice about security issues. We’re all hoping as much as possible that the Games are free of any incident and all the athletes from around the world are

safe and secure. But it’s not for politicians to be making judgements this far out. It’s more prudent to take professional security advice and give our athletes and the Australian people every guarantee that this is going to be a successful Olympic Games free of any problems and incidents.

JOURNALIST: The Foreign Minister says that the ongoing political debate about withdrawing troops from Iraq is making us more of a terrorist target, do you agree?

LATHAM: Well not even his own Prime Minister agrees. Mr Howard wouldn’t confirm that assessment yesterday nor would the Defence Minister Robert Hill. So what is Mr Downer doing? He’s really arguing against himself. Last year the Government said Australia would be in Iraq for months not years, and they had exit strategies of their own for the air traffic controllers at Baghdad airport. They’ve reversed those strategies so in the large part Mr Downer is arguing against himself and they’re [inaudible] comments that he’s making.

JOURNALIST: The Attorney General said today that asylum seekers should have to pay for a third of their costs in front of the High Court and also that lawyers might have to pay for un-meritous cases. Do you think that will impede the

justice system or make the courts more efficient?

LATHAM: We support the principle of streamlining the processes for migration cases through the courts. We supported that principle and we are always happy to look at good constructive proposals consistent with the principal. I haven’t seen the detail of what Mr Ruddock has said today but Labor always examines his propositions carefully. We have a principal of streamlining and making the system as efficient as possible and we’ll look at his latest propositions with an open mind.

JOURNALIST: Mr Ruddock is also saying that children will remain in detention despite this damning leaked report today, which has been very critical of the immigration department and its practices.

LATHAM: We think that’s wrong. Labor believes that the children should be out of detention centres. We’re not waiting for a court judgement or other assessments, that’s our policy. If we truly believe in family values, if the Howard Government is serious about family values how can we have children growing up behind barbed wire in Australia? Our policy of having the children out is the right one and if the Howard Government truly believed its rhetoric about family values it would adopt the policy too.

JOURNALIST: The Government has released a $5 billion science package, that seems pretty generous doesn’t it?

LATHAM: It’s called an innovation statement but it’s actually got nothing new in it. It’s old money that’s been recycled, old priorities that have been re-ordered. It doesn’t really achieve much that’s new, it doesn’t have a lot of innovation in it and it’s also consistent with the Government’s strategy of giving with one hand and taking with the other. They’ve de-funded 19 co-operative research centres including valuable research about the Great Barrier Reef. So we don’t see this as the package that takes R&D and science in this country forward, in fact it’s a recycling of old priorities and old money.